Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Vico and the "marketplace of ideas"

"The work of Vico is recognized today as the magnificent beginning of a modern philosophy of history and politics..." -- The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 13, p. 180

Vico offers yet one more piece of evidence against the vulgar notion that the best ideas are always those currently winning in the "marketplace." Vico died essentially unknown, and only became recognized for his genius in the last century.

"Institution X is not perfect..."

"therefore it must be replaced."

I think this is one of the most damaging political notions in circulation. It played a large part in the destruction of federalism in the United States: "States' rights permit some states to do bad things, therefore they must be done away with!" Local control of schools fell victim to the same sort of reasoning.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Crisis of Modernity...

In a few sweet lines:

This is the night of the expanding man
I take one last drag
As I approach the stand
I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long
This brother is free
I'll be what I want to be

I'll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues -- Donal Fagen and Walter Becker

"This brother is free" is the crucial line.

Unfair, yes...

But funny nevertheless:

Monday, April 28, 2014

Google Translate Breakthrough!

I have been troubled by the fact that Google translate always translates second-person English into the formal second person in most languages that have such a thing. (In fact, in Italian, it seems to always use the second-person plural!) I have wondered if there was a way around this.

Well, the most excellent Rod discovered one, by recalling that English once had both formal and informal second-person pronouns: to get the informal form of the second person in a language that has such a notion, you use "thou" and "thee" in your English text!

You Will Can

I ran across the word "peux" in reading French. I could guess from the context it meant "you can," but what was the infinitive form, so I could be certain? I finally located "pouvoir" in the dictionary. A fairly irregular verb, hey?

But then I realized that the equivalent English verb is even more irregular. For instance, what is the future form of "you can"? Not "you will can," which would be talking about your future existence in a John Steinbeck novel, but "you will be able to." Now that's irregular!

The Foolishness of Economism

On Facebook recently, some friend of mine claimed that philanthropy is "The least socially beneficial thing billionaires do with their money."

The view that what people want is equivalent to what is beneficial for them is a complete divergence from the classical-Christian understanding of the human being, as well as from that of other major traditional understandings, such as that of Buddhism. If we are mired in the world of doxa, or sin, or samsara, we constantly want what is not good for us, and what is good for us we do not want. Someone who made their billions marketing products to people that harm them, whether physically or spiritually, has not done anything socially beneficial at all, despite the fact that everyone who bought those products did so "voluntarily."

If a person marketed tobacco her whole life, and then opened a soup kitchen, it is a symptom of derangement to claim that the latter is less socially beneficial than the former, rather than a sign of economic savvy.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

What is wrong with the term "neoliberalism"?

I frequently see libertarians objecting to the term "neoliberalism." And yet they boast that they are the real liberals, and that liberalism underwent a revival after WWII, due to events like the founding of the Mount Pelerin society.

So what is wrong with calling this the new liberalism?

The living word versus the dried husk

The living word is the experience of the prophet's encounter with God. The dead, dried husk of that encounter is called "scripture."

No wonder people buy lottery tickets

In the movie Out of Time, I just heard someone say, about an alternative cancer treatment, "Seventeen percent [success rate]? The odds are better I'd hit the lottery!"

Well, I guess if a one dollar ticket gives you an 18 or 19% chance at winning a million dollars, I'm an idiot not to have been playing!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The real significance of creation stories

"Since the divine Beginning, though experienced as real, is not an event in the time of the world, the imaginative creation story is the symbolism necessary for its expression." -- The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 28, p. 175

Those were the days when a government knew how to do infrastructure

By an estimate I just heard (from an historian), there are roughly 350 Roman bridges still standing today, some of which are carrying modern vehicular traffic.

Your hegemonic discourse is a downer to my emancipatory nihilism

I've run into the term "hegemonic discourse" a few times in Marxist writing in the last week. Here's what I think is going on with this one:

Marx himself had tried to make his arguments using logic and facts. But what became of Marxism after his death, in terms of logic and facts, was not pretty. The logic of Marxism was dismantled by the rise of the marginalist school of economics. The supposed historic dialectic sequences were shown, by historical research, not to have played out in the way Marx thought they had. And capitalism's development did not reflect Marks's predictions as to what would take place.

What to do? Well, one could say "Karl Marx was a very bright guy, but clearly he went wrong somewhere." But by this point Marxism had become a religion, and religions are not given up easily. So if the logic and facts were against Marx, then they themselves must be the problem! So someone using logic and facts to show that Marxism is fundamentally mistaken is engaged in "hegemonic discourse," and his logic and his facts are themselves the tools of oppression.

Now your theory is irrefutable, as the only known ways to refute a theory are logic and facts! Whew, that was a close call.

Why did someone put cocaine...

All over the spine of A Portrait of a Lady?

(It's actually corn starch: supposed to kill mildew.)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rationalism in Religion...

In fact, preceded secular rationalism:

"The context in which the perversion of immanence is to be placed must be mentioned once more. The diversionist, it is true, responds to anxiety with the creation of a fictitious ground; he furthermore displays no particular zeal to rediscover the ground. All too frequently, he even enjoys his self-made existence, under the labels of freedom and reason; but he is not the one who has caused the groundlessness of existence in the first place. The ground of existence, not easily to be rediscovered, was lost by the perversion of transcendence -- and that misfortune must be charged to the fundamentalism of ecclesiastic Christianity." -- The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 28, p. 83

The futility of political systems

"As far as the search of order is concerned, a system is a futile enterprise; for the shell of certain knowledge, stifling a true search of the ground, perpetuates the state of groundless it intends to relieve... When man functions as God, therefore, the cords pulled by the Player of the Puppets become the bars of a prison; and the believer in a system wants to draw everybody into the prison he has built around himself." -- The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 28, p. 83

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Please someone!

Slogging through another Marxist paper. Now I'm learning that I should be interested in "emancipatory nihilism."

Look, I don't think suicide is right. But if any of you readers would care to come by and shoot me now, I'm sure you would be forgiven.

Property Rights Absolutism: Missing a Sense of Tragedy

Elizabeth Corey reviews The Tragedy of Religious Freedom. She writes that the essence of the tragic understanding of politics "lies in recognizing fundamentally competing goods and the consequent realization that the conflict between them is permanent."

In contrast, Rothbard, Block, Hoppe, etc. attempt to achieve a "comic" theory of politics by pretending that there is only one political good: property rights. But that is a falsehood, and so their theories wind up in places that no sane person should go.

Monday, April 21, 2014

It's as if Johnson Refuted Berkeley by Kicking at an Abstract Idea!

Bob Murphy "refutes" my post noting that the Cosmos writers blundered big-time in saying Newton invented the calculus in the Principia:

"So, I will give Tyson (and his writers) the benefit of the doubt on this one. From further investigations, it seems that Newton used the idea of a limit of shrinking geometric shapes, which one could plausibly say is, or is not, calculus."

I am flabbergasted. First of all, the claim on the table was, again, that Newton had invented the calculus in the Principia. Of course, he had invented it years earlier, and far from inventing it there, he didn't use it there. We can tell because there is no calculus in the Principia: what there are is the geometric ideas ("limit of shrinking geometric shapes") that were used to solve problems of derivation and integration before Newton and Leibniz invented the calculus. Of course, these ideas are the steps that led up to the calculus, and so they are quite "calculus-like." (In fact, in the more general sense of the term "calculus," "a method of calculation," they certainly are a calculus.) But these are not the ideas that Newton and Leibniz are given credit for inventing. And these geometrical ideas Newton used were not invented by him. The very fellow Bob cites to refute me writes, "On the other hand, some propositions of the Principia are framed in a geometric language which appears to be very easily translatable into calculus concepts."

"Translatable": now why would you have to translate the ideas in the Principia into calculus, I wonder? Because they are not expressed in the calculus. Of course, they are expressed in a calculus: but this is quibbling over words, as this was not what Newton invented about which it is said "Newton invented calculus."

It is as though we had the following sequence:

Tyson: Newton wrote the Principia in beautiful English.

Callahan: Oh boy: no, he wrote it in Latin.

Murphy: Ah, ah, let's give Tyson the benefit of the doubt: I found this paper that says Newton's ideas are "easily translatable" into English!

UPDATE: To clarify, Newton used techniques in the Principia, some of which may be called part of calculus, but which were not invented by him. What he (and Leibniz) had invented in the 1660s was not used in the Principia: "Newton (co-)invented calculus in the late 1660s, and he wrote Principia in the late 1680s. It would be natural to expect that Newton used the calculus in Principia. But it seems that he didn’t. Instead, Newton wrote Principia in the style of Euclid’s Elements, that is, using Classical Greek geometry."

Those techniques used are a calculus. So someone might say, "Well, Newton did use calculus in the Principia." The key point here is that he did not use the calculus that he had invented. So for Tyson to say he "invented" calculus in the Principia is absurd: what calculus he had invented was not used in the Principia. What calculus he used in the Principia he had not invented.

UPDATE II: Here is the most convincing case that Newton did not employ his new discoveries from the 1660s in the Principia:

"By the help of the new Analysis [i.e. algebraic calculus] Mr. Newton found out most of the Propositions in his Principia Philosophiae: but because the Ancients for making things certain admitted nothing into Geometry before it was demonstrated synthetically, he demonstrated the Propositions synthetically, that the System of the Heavens might be founded upon good Geometry. And this makes it now difficult for unskilful men to see the Analysis by which those Propositions were found out."

I think this is pretty decisive, because it is Newton himself explaining why he did not employ the new calculus in that work.

The timeline is roughly as follows:

In the 1660s, Newton is moving towards the development of analytical calculus. Newton seems to arrive at the fundamental theorem during this time.

In the 1670s, Leibniz begins working on calculus. He and Newton are aware of each others work at this time.

In 1684, Leibniz publishes his first display of his new techniques.

In 1687, Newton publishes the Principia. As he notes in the quote above, he did not employ his new analytical calculus in writing the book, but instead relied on a geometrical calculus.

In 1694, Newton finally begins publishing his work in analytical calculus.

Do My Scholarly Duties, or...

Perhaps I could spend the day hitting my head with a hammer?

Because I volunteered to chair a panel at an upcoming conference, and it is time to get cracking and read the five papers being presented. So I took a glance at the first of them. It is 44 pages long, and here is the last sentence:

"Solely intensively waged class struggle, intentionally aimed at achieving practical effects, stands a chance at decisively halting capitalist social reproduction."

Oh my. Forty pages of "class struggle" ahead of me. Thanks for the birthday present, f*&^ing Karl!

UPDATE: From bad to worse: it looks as though I am chairing a panel full of Marxist papers!

Bad choice in Google Translate?

I was exploring the roots of the Dutch word "verkenningen," which is fitting, since it means "exploration." It looked to me as though its parts were essentially "for" and "knowing": but was I right about this? I tried "kenning" and got "recognition." What about "ken"? And then I realized you can't check something like that easily in Google Translate. If Dutch has a word "ken" that means the same thing as the English word, then Google Translate will return "ken." But if there is no such word in Dutch, Google Translate will return... "ken," because whenever you type a word not in a language into the program, you simply get that word back in the translation.

This strikes me as an error: wouldn't it be better to do something such as put in some symbol standing for an untranslatable word? That way the user knows that, at least as far as Google is concerned, that word does not exist in the source language.

Assemble all the suspects

In countless fictional mysteries, the solution to the crime is revealed when the detective protagonist assembles all the suspects in a dining room or drawing room, reviews the whole case for them, and then names the culprit.

In the entire history of actual crime, do you think a single real investigation has ever ended in this way?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

God's playthings

"I say that a man must be serious with the serious. God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God's plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games..." -- Plato, The Laws

Resisting debt

Here's the funny thing: apparently, according to this book (I admit I just read the summary), the way to "resist" debt is not to resist borrowing money, but to resist paying back the money you already borrowed.

Friday, April 18, 2014


"But in acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter. Even in the animal world it bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by the operation of blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play, so they must be more than merely mechanical things." -- Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 3-4

New Yorkers Crossing the Street

So a fellow who looks like he's about 90 approaches the intersection moving slightly faster than a three-toed sloth. He looks up: the walk signal changes from the blinking red hand that means "don't start crossing" to the steady red hand that means "get out of the intersection now." Across the intersection, there is a car revving its engine, ready for the light to change. What does the pedestrian do?

Of course he starts to cross the street: He's a New Yorker! I mean, if this guy just came to a complete halt at the corner, he hardly would be going any slower than he had been. Meanwhile, at the rate he's moving, the car might miss the entire green light before he is out of the crosswalk. Doesn't matter: Years of training kick in, saying that as long as you can get in front of the car and block its path without getting hit, you cross, dammit.

Playing Catchup

Here are the twelve volumes of Toynbee's A Study of History that I really ought to have finished long ago, but haven't:

And that is just one tiny shelf of one bookcase out of hundreds in what is a rather small library. Sisyphus, push on!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The strange life of the modern "scholar"

I just spent a couple of days assembling a grant application. Ugh, what a bore. And how little it had to do with being a scholar! There would almost seem to be a negative correlation between people who are good at grant applications, and people who are good scholars: A good scholar must almost necessarily consider the hours spent on the application a waste of time that could've been used for scholarship.

I bet Aquinas never had to deal with grant applications.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Box of free books!

Time to rummage. (Do people give away their books this way in other cities?)

Oops, Dan Brown discovered inside: back away slowly.

The ""Fascist" Koch Brothers, Part II

MathMan wrote in the comments on my previous post on this topic:

"A little while ago you had a post about how the left and the right often use the word capitalism in different ways, the right using it to mean the lack of government intervention in economic affairs, and the left using it a system designed to benefit the owners of capital. I think something similar is going on here. I think the left is using fascism to mean a system where society is controlled by the interests of big business..."

Well, they might be using it that way (really, I think the word has just come to mean "yicky" when used by many on the left), but such usage makes no sense. That is because, historically, fascism was not a system controlled by the interests of big business. Fascism was a system where the interests of big business had to buckle under to those of the party and the movement. The over-riding characteristic of fascism is, in fact, ultranationalism expressed through a single, militarized party, where all other interests, including those of the owners of capital, must be subordinate to those of the State as a collective.

I don't know the Koch brothers, and have never investigated their sincerity or tried to find out what their "true" goals are. But if one suspects that what they're really after is in an elitist takeover of society, then the right word to use for them is "oligarchs." But that just does not carry the punch that "fascists" does, so what they hey, smear away!

Unlike with "fascism," in the case of "capitalism," we have two different realms of discourse colliding:

1) For the left, "capitalism" usually means the actual, existing social system we see around us right now, e.g. in the G7 countries. That system is characterized by extensive government favors to business interests. By "capitalism" the left is designating an historical ideal type.

2) For many libertarians, "capitalism" denotes a purely ideal state of affairs, in which there is no government "interference" in the market, but which they believe can be made real. These libertarians are designating a (at this moment) purely theoretical ideal type.

Things are not like that with the use of the term "fascism." There really was no theoretical fascism: the fascists were proudly anti-theory. So all we have is the historical phenomenon of fascism. And that was certainly not a system where society was controlled by the interests of big business.

In Which I Strive to Make Everyone Dislike My Position

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Well, that would be one way to "get home"

I was using the direction fetching capabilities of my phone, and accidentally asked to get from where I was (which was right inside my apartment) to home.

Now my building is very long and stretches about a third of the way down the block. The directions I received basically told me to climb out my window, walk up that third of a block, and come back in the front door. A very interesting combination of extreme precision with complete ignorance of context.

Freaking fracking

I pass a student of mine standing at a table with a petition.

"Hey Professor, would you like to sign an anti-fracking petition?"

"No, I don't really know anything about it."

"What do you mean?" He looked dumbfounded.

"Well, I would need to read up on it for a while before I signed any petition, either for or against it."

"Oh, I can tell you: it's bad!"

Given the amount of studying that my students do, I would be willing to bet that he knew no more about the subject than I know. But he made up for that with lots of extra certainty.

I've got crabs...

on my mind.

Specifically, horseshoe crabs. I spent my summers at the beach when I was young. One of the things we kids would do would be to catch horseshoe crabs as they passed by in the shallow water. We would grab them by their spiny tails, stare for a minute at the writhing mass of legs and claws beneath their shells, and then whirl them around and toss them back in the water.

Only much later did it occur to me to imagine this activity from the crab's point of view. Let us suppose the crabs to be mildly reflective creatures. They have formed an image of the cosmos. The sea they call the Great Mother, who encompasses all that there is, and the other inhabitants of the sea take on different roles in a cosmic myth. This mythology endured for millions of years.

But suddenly, certain individuals have an experience of a beyond, something past the Great Mother. When they return to the sea, they try to express this experience of a beyond to those who remained behind. But it is not at all a simple task: it was confusing, there was stunningly bright light, great and powerful beings, a swirl of colors, dizzying motion, great dryness. How to describe it all?

It turns out that different crabs use different words to convey their experience. This is going to be confusing to those who have never left the sea. If they are at least good empiricists, they should be able to settle on this much at a minimum: to some of those who venture near the edge, something profound occurs, they catch a glimpse of... well, something, and this experience leaves them changed.

But this thought is disturbing: if I have never left the sea, have I missed something? I am comfortable here: I want to ignore whatever might disturb the cozy world I am living in. And thus I might ignore the many great similarities reported by those who return to the sea from beyond it, and instead fixate on the differences in the details of what they report. And if I want to appear clever and superior, I can turn this fixation on the details into what might pass in some circles for an "intellectual critique" of the whole idea that there is a beyond: "Oh, so you believe in a 'beyond,' do you? But whose beyond? Buddha-crab's beyond? Plato-crab's beyond? Lao-Tse-crab's beyond? Moses-crab's beyond? I'll tell you what: you disbelieve in all beyonds except one. I've just gone you one better, and tossed out the childish belief in that last beyond as well."

And if I find a group of like-minded crabs, and we continually congratulate each other for how smart we are to ignore these ludicrous reports of the beyond, perhaps we will be able to convince ourselves that nothing at all really occurs out there at the edge.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Come on guys!

I am subbing in a Micro I class tomorrow. My assignment is to go over chapter 11 of The Economic Way of Thinking, "The Distribution of Income." There, I just found the following:

"We persuade [others] to hire us, to buy from us, to lend to us, or simply to recognize that our status entitles us to income. The last technique is the one employed by children to extract income from their parents..."

Really, guys, do you want to make it that easy for critics of "economism"? As I've been caring for my children, unbeknownst to me, they have been employing "techniques" to "extract" income from me?!

UPDATE: I should note that this atrocity was removed in the subsequent version. Good work on that, Boettke and Prychitko.

Dunderheads to the left, dunderheads to the right

Right-wing ninnies call everyone with whose policies they disagree a "socialist."

Meanwhile, left-wing ninnies call everyone with whose policies they disagree a "fascist."

Look, I disagree with the Koch brothers on a number of issues. But "fascists"? No, I am pretty sure they are not for the massive government intervention in the economy that characterized fascism. Nor are they for the militarization of society that characterized fascism.


"The modern deformers of humanity, when they have gained power in the form of a totalitarian government, use the same threat [of murder] as their ultima ratio, while in the so-called free societies they use milder forms of violence, such as social boycott. What happened to Camus after the publication of his L'homme révolté and the break with Sartre is a representative example of the treatment meted out in a Western society to a man who dares to think." "The Eclipse of Reality," Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 28, p. 135

What was the moth up to?

I was reading on the porch tonight when a moth landed on my hand. (Yay, spring has arrived in the Poconos!) I watched it for several minutes. During that time it walked slowly around my hand, frantically nudging my skin with its proboscis.

Does anyone have any idea what it was doing? Was it finding some sort of nutrition on my skin? Is this behavior common in some species of moths?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A place where you can use a contraction in English but not the uncontracted form?

I just wrote: "Why shouldn’t public policy ameliorate this problem?"

Then I thought, "Should I really be using a contraction here?" (Thinking about what level of formality my audience would expect in this article.)

But then I tried the sentence without the contraction: "Why should not public policy ameliorate this problem?"

Wow! The version without the contraction sounds completely awkward to my ear, as though it were written by someone for whom English is a clumsily spoken second-language, while the one with the contraction seems just fine.

Is this a recognized linguistic phenomena? Is there a name for it?

Note, there are many cases where the contracted form would be more normal in everyday speech:

"No, I can't go."

But in writing, or even in speech when one wanted to emphasize the "not," "No, I cannot go" would be entirely acceptable and unexceptionable. But "Why should not X?" seems different: it is not just less usual, but almost out-right wrong. I would never expect to hear a native speaker say "Why should not I go to the mall today?" On the other hand, "Why shouldn't I go to the mall today?" is just fine.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why Has William F. Buckley's Best Idea Been So Universally Ignored?

I certainly don't consider myself a "Buckleyite." But I will confess that, as a grade-school kid, I was such a nerd that I used to beg my parents for permission to stay up late so that I could watch Firing Line. It was Buckley who taught me that slouching and mumbling could be effective public-speaking techniques!

In any case, I have never forgotten one particular proposal of his. The argument he sought to address with this proposal was that "safety-net" government welfare programs could not be left strictly to the states, because then residents of relatively poor states would have a much more flimsy net under them then would residents of relatively rich states. And such a situation might be held to violate the idea of "equal protection under the law."

Okay, let us set aside any question of whether government should be in the welfare provision business at all. For purposes of this post, let us just assume that this role will be taken by some level of government. And let us further assume that it is a real problem for social policy if a poor person in Mississippi only gets $4000 a year in assistance, while an equally poor person in Connecticut gets $12,000 a year in assistance. Given these two assumptions, don't we have to accept that welfare services must be largely provided at the federal level?

Buckley's brilliant (I say) answer is "No," even given the two assumptions made in the previous paragraph. All the federal government need do to avert the second problem is to tax richer states a certain amount for welfare provision, and then hand that money over to poorer states for their own welfare programs. (And the same could be done for education, by the way.)

And though I don't recall Buckley ever making this point, the same procedure could be applied at the state level to equalize resources for welfare (or education) provision among the cities and towns within a state.

Buckley's suggestion is, broadly speaking, an instantiation of the principle of Catholic social teaching called "subsidiarity": social problems should be handled at the most local level possible. Why should this be a principal guiding social policy? It is not because local government is without its flaws. Communities can be very provincial and filled with prejudice. The principle of subsidiarity does not rely upon any utopian view of local governance. And, in fact, Buckley's proposal would allow higher levels of government to exert significant checks on local malfeasance: for instance, a higher level of government could require that all compensatory grants be allotted in a race-neutral fashion, as a condition of poorer localities receiving their compensatory funding.

Given these acknowledged problems of local governance, why should we favor local solutions in general? My thoughts run back to an actual incident in my neighborhood that happened a few years ago. Two of my friends had a young son who fell out of his chair and broke his arm. Naturally, they brought him to the hospital to get treated. For the bureaucrats at the hospital, a three-year-old with a broken arm was a "red flag" signaling that an investigation of child abuse must be launched. After treating my friends' child, they held the boy in the hospital for three days, not for medical reasons, but in order to investigate this potential abuse.

If this had been handled at a more local level, everyone in our community would have immediately declared that it was absurd to think that this couple deliberately had broken their own child's arm. After treatment, he would have been right back home with them. Of course, local communities can make mistakes about such things: we see it on the news all the time, when we hear the neighbors say "I never would have imagined that X would have been capable of Y." But utopia does not exist! All possible social arrangements have flaws.

The bureaucratic decision-making body operating in this case could not take into account any local knowledge of the character of this child's parents. The end result was that this child, already traumatized by having broken his arm, was then further traumatized by not being allowed to return home to his loving parents for three days.

Ask yourself: if you were the parents in question, and that child with a broken arm was yours, who would you want to be deciding when he could come back home with you, your friends and neighbors, or some faceless bureaucrats?

The valley of dry bones

Down in the valley of dry bones
There I make my bed
Down in the valley of dry bones
Among the living dead

Turn up the music
Hide the void
Dark hollow in my skull
Turn up the music
Hide the wound
Make the sorrow grow dull

Roll 'em roll 'em
Shake them bones
Rock 'em rock 'em
Toss them stones

No man is an island
White duke on Mars
Snowman and rainman
Lift off for the stars

To survive is not to thrive
To live just talking jive
No man is an island
He is a peninsula

Roll 'em roll 'em
Shake them bones,
Rock 'em rock 'em
Toss them stones

Your hand was upon me
I smacked it away
You told me "Prophesy!"
I said: "Another day."

But the breath of the four winds
Swept me off my feet
In the valley of dry bones
On a lonely street

Rock 'em rock 'em
Roll 'way that stone
Roll 'em roll 'em
Stitch up that bone

Turn up the heat
Stop the cold
Creeping through my soul
Turn up the heat
Block the wind

Whistling past this knoll

Down in the valley of dry bones
There I bake my bread
Down in the valley of dry bones
Among the living dead

Why you should never go into a New York deli without a few 20s on you

Here is why:

You will put some items on the counter. A very pleasant, but heavily accented person will say a number to you. This is how much you owe. The problem is, you will not understand what number was said.

If you did not follow my advice in the title, what happens next is and embarrassing repetition of you asking the person working the register to repeat himself, while he becomes increasingly upset that you are not understanding what he is saying.

If you did follow my advice, the solution is simple: you put a $20 bill on the counter. Now watch the person working the register. You will find yourself in one of two states. I have listed the appropriate actions to take depending on which of them you are in:

STATE A: He picks up the $20: all is well.
1) Take your change. 
2) Leave with your goods.

STATE B: He frowns or shakes his head.
1) Put another $20 on the counter.
2) Watch the cashier again.
3) Repeat until you move to STATE A.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Yes, SSM Opponents Realize That Homosexuals Are People

Several times in the last couple of days, I've seen people claiming that anyone who is against SSM does not think that homosexuals are people.

Okay, by the same logic, does anyone who is against group marriage think that polygamists are not people? Does anyone who is against marriage between two siblings think that people who want to marry their one of their siblings are not human?

The fact of the matter is that marriage is not, unlike expressing one's opinion, something one can do on one's own, so long as no one interferes. It also is not, unlike f&*#king, something any two people can do on their own, so long as no one interferes. No, marriage is a request for public approval of a relationship. If you want to believe that spiritually you are married to the planet Neptune, I don't think anyone should get in your way. But if you come and ask for public approval of your "marriage" to the eighth planet, then don't be surprised if the public does not, in fact, approve.  And if it doesn't approve, it does not mean people think you are not human. (They probably just think you are a very silly human.) It does not place those who want to marry planets in an "apartheid regime," as one commenter here ludicrously contended SSM opponents wish to do to homosexuals.

To drive on public roads, one needs a driver's license. (Please don't bring up anarchy here: there is no reason to think that private road owners would not be even more restrictive than the government is about who can drive. This, in fact, probably would have been seen by, say, Rothbard, as a great advantage of private road ownership: crappy drivers could just be denied all access to "the better sort" of roads.) Today, we do not grant drivers licenses to blind people. Perhaps soon, with the onset of automated cars, we should consider doing so. But that we don't do so today does not mean that we think the blind "are not people," nor does it mean that the blind are living in "an apartheid regime."

Similarly, when one wants to get married, one goes and applies for a marriage "license," right? Maybe, as some libertarians believe, the State should have no part in this process. But as long as it does, some people will be turned down, or the license will cease to have any meaning at all.

It is fine to vigorously disagree with someone else about who should and who should not be granted a marriage license. But it is really not cool to demonize those who disagree with you about where that line should be drawn. You do realize that traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims are people too, don't you?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

By the way, no, I am not against same-sex marriage

All things considered, I think permitting SSM is probably for the best.

But I am not at all certain I am right about this. I have carefully contemplated Aquinas's reasoning on sexual morality for a number of years. I don't think he got this right, but I am certain his was a serious bit of moral reasoning, and not just "Gay sex: yuck!"

One bit of evidence here: per Aquinas's criteria, masturbation is clearly a worse sin than gay sex. Aquinas posits three goods that are the τελοσ of sex: pleasure, intimacy, and procreation. (Note: Aquinas considers pleasure a good that sex achieves!) Well, clearly, gay sex can achieve two of those ends, while masturbation can only achieve one. So if Aquinas is a "homophobe," then clearly he is even more so an "onanophobe." And loveless heterosexual intercourse done with the aid of contraceptives is also obviously worse on Aquinas's terms than intimate, loving gay sex.

Again, I suspect Aquinas's reasoning is flawed here (I will post why another time if you would like), but while I am pretty arrogant, I am not quite so arrogant as to be certain that I have out thought one of the most brilliant human beings who ever lived.

And thus, while I am not an opponent of SSM, I am an opponent of demonizing those who accept the reasoning of Aquinas, or something of the sort, as "evil homophobes" who deserve to be denied the right to even make a living for differing from me in my evaluation of this issue.

If some CEO declares "Gays should be stoned in the public square," that, I agree, calls for a boycott. But someone who merely says, "I think marriage should be regarded, as it has been for thousands of years in almost every human society, as something between men and women"? Well, no, isn't liberal tolerance actually supposed to mean something?

The Meaning of Faith

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

In late February, UConn was slogging through a somewhat mediocre season. They looked like they would probably make the NCAA tournament, but "everyone" would have expected a first or second round knock-out.

At that point, their coach, Kevin Ollie (a devout Christian whose mother is a minister), was asked how he thought the rest of their season would play out. He replied "I think we will win the national championship."

What an absurd, ridiculous answer! A few days later, his team would get blown out by Louisville, 81-48. They looked like a team that could barely get the ball past half court, let alone win more than a single game in the NCAA tournament.

But Ollie's faith was not a statement about the Bayesian probability that his team would triumph. He was not, as many people who ridicule the idea of faith typically contend, irrationally believing that, say, unicorns exist, despite a massive amount of evidence that they don't. No: he was making an emotional commitment, he was refusing to hedge his bets, he was refusing to say "Well, I've done my best, but the players I have this year just aren't up to the challenge." He was declaring himself "all in."

And that, my friends, has always been the actual meaning of faith as talked about in Christianity: going all in. It has nothing to do with assent to dubious intellectual propositions: it is about commitment.

Oh, and by the way, who just won the national championship tonight?

UPDATE: 'Among Kevin Ollie's many notable phrases is "believing in the dark." He expects his players to believe, even when they can't see.' Um, that would be, perhaps, "the conviction of things not seen"?

UPDATE II: Let me be careful not to place the sole burden of this misinterpretation of the meaning of faith on nonbelievers: there are, of course, a minority of Christians who contend that faith means believing nonsense such as that there once was a boat that could have held all million-plus of the world's animal species at once, and that platypuses, pandas, penguins and pythons all somehow jetted to Israel to hop aboard this vessel.

UPDATE III: Ollie: "They believed in a vision before anyone had seen it."

Monday, April 07, 2014

USA Today sure knows how to defend a view!

There is talk of NCAA players unionizing. In response, USA Today has published an editorial entitled "Unionize NCAA players? No: Our view."

Hmm, I was curious: what is their argument against the idea? Here it is, in its entirety:

* "unionization is the wrong remedy for what ails big-time college football and men's basketball."

* "collective bargaining isn't the right answer to these problems"

Seriously, these two lines are the only places where the titular question is addressed.

So, there you have it: The players shouldn't unionize, because it is a bad idea!

Canada readying to invade the Sun


'“Canadian soldiers can go anywhere, in any conditions and show up ready to carry out their mission,” Lt.-Col. Shane McArthur, Land Component Commander, said in a statement released by the Canadian Armed Forces this week.'

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Great minds think alike

"In the classic experience of noetic existence man is free either to engage in the action of 'immortalizing' by following the pull of the divine Nous, or to choose death by following the counter pull of the passions. The psyche of man is the battleground between the forces of life and death. Life is not given; the God of the Laws [by Plato] can only offer it to the revelation of his presence; life to be gained requires the cooperation of man." -- Eric Voegelin, describing Plato's and Aristotle's understanding of immortality, "Reason," The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. XII, p. 281

"For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace" -- Romans 8:6-11

Barack Obama, until May of 2012

was publicly against SSM.

Now the same people who voted for him (over 60% of Portland voters did) are determined to shut down the business of any person who has publicly expressed the exact same view that Obama held a mere two years ago.

This is really insane.

CORRECTION: MathMan corrects me: in the post I link to above, I read that "only two years ago" Obama did not support SSM, and unwisely thought this meant in his presidential campaign. But no, clearly the meaning of the post I linked to is that as of April 2012, that was still his position. He publicly announced that his position had changed in May 2012. I have corrected the post to reflect the actual situation.

UPDATE II: I accidentally typed 2014 in my correction when I meant to type 2012.

The Road to the Title

Before the tournament, UConn was ranked 18th in the country, and Kentucky was unranked.

To get to the final game, in four consecutive games...

UConn beat #6, #9, #11 and #1.
Kentucky beat #2, #5, #7 and #12.

Not too shabby.

Andrew Sullivan Probably Did More to Advance SSM...

than any other single person in the world.

Here is what he has to say about the Brendan Eich witch hunt:
Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us...

When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance. If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel? It’s staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society.
By the way, Sullivan reports that 20 years ago, for being one of the first to support SSM, gay activists called him "neofascist," "heterosexist," and "patriarchal." But now they have changed their minds, and come to favor SSM, so anyone who opposes it is a "homophobe."

Ah, sweet tolerance!

Friday, April 04, 2014

No, Pop History of Science Is Just Bad, Whether It Deals with Religion or Not

Some of you may be inclined to suspect that I am rough on pop history because pop history is sometimes rough on religion. This, despite the fact that I keep noting that serious historians who are atheists are pretty rough on the pop history of the church versus science as well.

But the latest episode of Cosmos dealt with an episode in history where religion does not really enter in at all. And it just completely bungs it up.

For me, the most stunning howler was that Neil deGrasse Tyson says that the Principia was where Newton introduced calculus. Of course, it has no doubt been the topic of many a PhD thesis to ask "Given Newton had already invented calculus, why didn't he use it at all in the Principia?"

In other words, the complete absence of calculus from the Principia is a famous problem in the history of science. But the scriptwriters for a show supposedly about the history of science completely overlooked this, and claimed instead that the Principia was where calculus had been introduced! 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Do Thoughts Exist?

If I say "The weather is bad tonight" and you say "Il tempo è brutto stasera" we have "expressed the same thought" in two different languages. But what is this thought? (Not just another expression of it, but the thought itself.) Where is it?

When one first begins to understand a foreign language without translating it internally, one has the experience of sentences in that language becoming "transparent": one sees right through them to something luminous behind them.

The various ways of expressing a thought exist: they have a place in space and time. But the thought itself? No, I think it is correct to say it does not exist: it is a nonexistent reality.

And so it is with the divine: we may see a burning bush, but the reality behind it cannot be pinned down within existence.

Expectations Puzzle


"Is it any surprise Ollie is already exceeding expectations?"

For something to be unsurprising means that it is expected, right? So, it was expected that Ollie would exceed expectations?

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

God Does Not Exist

Jonathan Finegold worries that God might exist. Let me re-assure him, God does not.

To exist is to be an object among other objects. Things that exist we can stumble upon in the world, point to, pick up, knock into, and so on.

But God is transcendent. Eric Voegelin would describe this by saying "God is a non-existent reality."

So, don't worry, Jonathan, God certainly is non-existent.

Historical documents are not relied upon, they are interrogated

A commenter scoffed at the idea that Neville Chamberlain might be vindicated for his decision at Munich in 1938 by "relying on" the exact same sources of information that Chamberlain used.

But this is a serious misapprehension of the historical method. Historians do not "rely" upon their sources. They use their sources' words as evidence giving clues as to what happened, not as statements of what did happen. For instance, consider Biston's Inscription, where Darius the Great declared: 
26. Darius the King says: An Armenian named Dadarshi, my subject -- I sent him forth to Armenia. I said to him: "Go forth, that rebellious army which does not call itself mine, that do you smite!" Thereupon Dadarshi marched off. When he arrived in Armenia, thereafter the rebels assembled (and) came out against Dadarshi to join battle. A place named Zuzahya, in Armenia -- there they joined battle. Ahuramazda bore me aid; by the favor of Ahuramazda my army smote that rebellious army exceedingly; of the month Thuravahara 8 days were past, then the battle was fought by them.

27. Darius the King says: Again a second time the rebels assembled (and) came out against Dadarshi to join battle. A stronghold named Tigra, in Armenia -- there they joined battle. Ahuramazda bore me aid; by the favor of Ahuramazda my army smote that rebellious army exceedingly; of the month Thuravahara 18 days were past, then the battle was fought by them.

28. Darius the King says: Again a third time the rebels assembled (and) came out against Dadarshi to join battle. A fortress named Uyama, in Armenia -- there they joined battle. Ahuramazda bore me aid; by the favor of Ahuramazda my army smote that rebellious army exceedingly; of the month Thaigarci 9 days were past, then the battle was fought by them. Thereafter Dadarshi waited for me until I arrived in Media.

29. Darius the King says: Thereafter a Persian named Vaumisa, my subject-him I sent forth to Armenia. Thus I said to him: "Go forth; the rebellious army which does not call itself mine -- smite them!" Thereupon Vaumisa marched off. When he arrived in Armenia, then the rebels assembled (and) came out against Vaumisa to join battle. A district named Izala, in Assyria -- there they joined battle. Ahuramazda bore me aid; by the favor of Ahuramazda my army smote that rebellious army exceedingly; of the month Anamaka 15 days were past, then the battle was fought by them.

30. Darius the King says: Again a second time the rebels assembled (and) came out against Vaumisa to join battle. A district named Autiyara, in Armenia -- there they joined battle. Ahuramazda bore me aid; by the favor of Ahuramazda my army smote that rebellious army exceedingly; on the last day of the month Thuravaharâthen the battle was fought by them. After that, Vaumisa waited for me in Armenia until I arrived in Media.
I count about four times the Armenians are "smote." And that is a very good indication that, despite what Darius said, the first three battles were inconclusive. Historians examine Darius's claim, not rely upon it, and they have used his own words claiming a series of decisive victories as evidence that, in fact, the Armenians were giving him a heck of a fight.

Hypnotized by Numbers


"The Spurs are 1 of 18 teams to lose a Game 7 in the NBA Finals. San Antonio's .778 win percentage this season would be the 2nd best by a team in the season following a Game 7 loss, ever so slightly behind the Pistons, who posted .780 win percentage in 2005-06 after losing in Game 7 to the Spurs the previous season. The Spurs, currently riding a 16-game win streak, are a league-best 56-16 this season. San Antonio would be the 3rd team to post the league's best outright win percentage in the season following a NBA Finals Game 7 loss (1988-89 and 2005-06 Pistons). The 1988-89 Pistons won the NBA title while the 2005-06 team was knocked out in the Conference Finals. Of the 17 previous teams to lose in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, 11 actually made it back to the Finals the following season and 5 went on to capture the title (the last to do so were the Pistons, who lost in 7 games in the 1987-88 Finals and then won the following season). The last 3 teams to lose a NBA Finals Game 7 failed to make it back to the NBA Finals the following season."

This has the impressive veneer of "data analysis," but the right analysis is "Only eighteen cases, wildly differing in details? Too few to mean anything."

But hey, the writer used numbers!

A sinister use of the vanity journal

There has been a proliferation of academic vanity journals over the last few years: basically, you pay to get some "peer-reviewed" paper published. This didn't seem too serious, as most search committees know to discount these publications.

But I just realized there is a more sinister use for these journals: snake oil salesmen are placing papers in them to give credibility to their fantastic claims for their products. The spiel I heard had the chief charlatan claiming his treatment had octogenarians beating twenty-year-old kids at basketball. Then the guy backed this with a references to "peer-reviewed research" published in something like the "Luxemborg Journal of Medicine."

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Morality: Both objective and historically contingent

I chaired a panel last weekend at the Ciceronian Society Conference. One of the papers was by Ryan Holston, and concerned the debate between Leo Strauss and Hans-Georg Gadamer on the nature of morality. Strauss held that morality was a set of timeless, placeless absolutes, so that what was wrong at one place and time is wrong at any other place and time. Gadamer argued that our moral practices are embedded in an historical situation, so that our moral judgments can't help but be historically contingent.

In my role as discussant of the paper, I declared them both to be right. How could that be?! Well, both are partially right, although each is taking a one-sided view of the topic.

As Plato well knew, sometimes the truth can best be communicated by means of a myth or a metaphor. So I offered a metaphor to explain how morality can be both objective and historically contingent.

Imagine on the sixth day of creation, God scatters human beings across the globe, and gives them the following mission:*

"Verily, I say unto ye: you will look around yourself, and by the sunset of this day, you will have climbed to the highest point it was possible for you to reach in a day of walking."

Clearly, in judging whether someone has obeyed this command, their contingent circumstances will be of utmost importance. We cannot expect someone who found himself in the midst of the Great Plains upon receiving this command, to have scaled Mount Everest by the end of the day. In fact, if they are 50 feet higher than they were in the morning, they have probably done a fine job obeying.

On the other hand, if someone walked around for a few minutes, then climbed down into a ditch and went to sleep for the rest of the day, I think we can objectively say that they failed to obey this command.

You may have recognized my debt to Plato here: yes, this is very much like Plato's metaphor in The Laws of man as a puppet, responding to the tugs on various cords. Man is virtuous in that he responds to the tugs on the golden cord of Reason, and blameworthy should he succumb to the tugs on the cords being manipulated by the passions. But what it means to respond to the tug of Reason or the tugs of the passions will be contingent upon his circumstances.

UPDATE: One member of the audience approached Ryan after the panel, clearly upset. "Wouldn't you agree," he asked, "that murdering an innocent person is wrong at any time and in any place?"

I did not catch the entire discussion, but from what I heard, Ryan took the right tack: that statement is an abstraction. Of course, if two people agree that some action can be described by the abstraction "Murdering an innocent person," then they have already agreed that the action in question is wrong. But, as usual, the devil is in the details: Who is a person? (Is a fetus a person?) Who is innocent? (Were the factory workers producing armaments for Nazi Germany innocents?) In what does murder consist? (If I order the bombing of the enemy's base camp, and several field nurses are killed as a result, did I murder them?)

* NOTE: This is just a metaphor. I am not asking you to believe in God, or to believe that obeying a command from God is a moral imperative. I am just asking you to except this hypothetical situation in order to understand what I am getting at.

Keep your termites happy with...

Am I mistaken

Or was 2013 a particularly good year for movies? It seems we had a lot of things out there that were both popular and critically acclaimed. Competition for best picture seemed very intense.

In any case, I just rented American Hustle, and can start deciding for myself.

UPDATE: Well, maybe I am mistaken: after a half an hour of "watching" really unlikable people go on about themselves at great length in voiceovers, I could not watch anymore. I went down to the basement and hit my fingers with a hammer for a while, as it felt so much better than watching that movie.

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...